NASA's New Year's Eve Party for Ultima Thule Requires Mattresses and a Tent

At midnight tonight, most people will be watching the ball drop in New York City, but the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland will be just as lit as Times Square. A scientist behind NASA’s New Horizons mission tells Inverse that the NASA team is ready to ring in the new year to the tune of Stephen Hawking’s voice mixed with the guitar stylings of Brian May as it visits Ultima Thule, the most remote object humans will have ever visited in space.

The New Horizons probe, launched in 2006, was meant to investigate the Kuiper Belt, a frigid zone in the solar system beyond the orbit of Neptune. In September, the team received the go-ahead from NASA to visit Ultima Thule, an object (or more likely, two objects joined together) about four billion miles from the sun. Tonight, New Horizons will make good on that promise and pass within 2,191 miles of Ultima Thule at approximately 12:33 am EST on January 1st.

Henry Throop, Ph.D., a senior scientist at the Planetary Institute who is also on the New Horizons team, says that the real moment of celebration will be 12:33 a.m., not midnight. Still there are things to look forward to when 2018 comes to a close. At 12:02 a.m. Queen guitarist Brian May, (who also holds a Ph.D. in astrophysics) will release his new single, literally titled “New Horizons (Ultima Thule remix)” from New Horizons HQ in Maryland.

“There will be a countdown here at the mission control at the Applied Physics Lab (APL) in Maryland,” he tells Inverse. “People are here around the clock, because we can’t wait to see the first data as soon as it comes down. And for those who can’t make it back to the hotel to sleep — well, a few people already have mattresses and even a tent set up in their offices.”

May has already released snippets of the song on Instagram, which featured the computerized voice of Stephen Hawking, which eventually gives way to a pulsing bass line. Throop adds that the song is “fabulous.”

It’s fortunate that the team likes the song because they’ll have to use it to keep themselves awake all night to hear from New Horizons. After 12:33 a.m., the probe will begin the process of analyzing Ultima Thule. During this time, the team won’t hear from the spacecraft and have to wait roughly 9 and a half hours.

Artist's rendering of New Horizons approaching Ultima Thule.
Artist's rendering of New Horizons approaching Ultima Thule.

“It’s going to be hard at work at that time, and we won’t hear from it for a number of hours. We expect to hear back from the spacecraft in a ‘phone home’ signal a little after 10 a.m. on the morning of January 1. That’s when we’ll be able to confirm that the spacecraft has successfully passed through the system, and taken the first close-up images of [Ultima Thule].”

It will take months, adds Throop, to download the full set observations, But the flyby should answer some questions about Ultima Thule. As New Horizons began its approach toward Ultima Thule last week, scientists noticed that it doesn’t give off light the way it should, given its composition and size. Alan Stern, the mission’s principal investigator previously told Inverse that the flyby should help illuminate Ultima’s first mystery.

As the crowds dissipate in Times Square, the team at the APL will still be pulling their own all-nighter, and the senior team will gather for an 11:30 a.m. news conference to share their early results. From Throop’s description, it seems like they’re not concerned about missing Ryan Seacrest hosting Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve. For one, there’s Brian May feat. Stephen Hawking to fill the musical gap. But there’s also the scientific goal that’s been over ten years in the making.

“It’s going to be exciting knowing that the spacecraft that we’ve worked so hard on is finally going to be doing its job in the Kuiper belt,” adds Throop. “It’s terrifically exciting to be here and exploring a brand new world.”

Media via NASA